General A.A. Brusilov on 10 August 1914:
My Dear, Priceless Little Wife, Nadyushenka!
It was exceedingly hard to part from you, my darling Sunny. But my duty to my country and my Tsar, the great responsibility which has been cast upon me and my love for the military, which I have studied all my life, compel me not to give in to any weakening of the will and to prepare with tripled energy for the bloody test which confronts us.
As yet, thank God, all goes well. This morning we are going by automobile to inspect the brave 4th Rifle Brigade. It presents a fine appearance, excellent officers with their regiment commanders and heads of brigades. Very reliable troops.
The spirit of the soldiers is excellent. They are all animated by a firm belief in the righteousness and honour of their cause and so there is fortunately no ground for nervousness or unease. That is remarkably comforting.
I constantly pray to our Lord Jesus Christ that He may grant us, His Orthodox Christians, victory over the enemy. I myself am in very good spirits. Do not worry, my dearest, be brave, have faith and pray for me .. .
I kiss you passionately.
To the men who led Russia to war there seemed good cause for optimism in August 1914. The memory of the shameful defeat by Japan had been drowned in the bouts of military expenditure during recent years. By 1914, Russia was spending more than Germany on her armed forces: over one-third of all government expenditures.2 It is not true, as historians later claimed, that the Russian army was unprepared for war. In manpower and materiel it was at least the equal of the German army, and, thanks to the recent improvement of Russia's western railways, took only three days more than its enemy to complete its mobilization. The Schlieffen Plan — which had been counting on Russia taking three weeks longer so that the German forces would be able to knock out France before Russia attacked them — was thus confounded and the Germans became bogged down in fighting on two Fronts. But this also saw the end of the widespread expectation that this would be a short war — All over by Christmas', as the saying went — and it was here that Russia's real weakness became exposed. For while Russia might have been ready for a short campaign of up to six months, she had no real contingency plans for a long war of attrition. Few indeed had expected such an ordeal. But whereas the other European powers managed to adapt and improvise, the tsarist system proved much too rigid and unwieldy, too inflexible and set in its ways, too authoritarian and inefficient, to adapt itself to the situation as it changed. The First World War was a titanic test for the states of Europe — and it was one that Tsarism failed in a singular and catastrophic way. Few people foresaw this in the first days of the conflict. It was only in the autumn, when the opening campaigns ended in bloody stalemate and the two opposing armies dug themselves in, that the weaknesses on the Russian side first became apparent.
Brusilov had been placed in command of the Eighth Army on the South-Western Front. With his foxy face and cavalry moustache, his genteel manners and clipped style of speech, he was in many ways the perfect image of the aristocratic general. But he was also a professional and was well versed in the new technology of warfare. To begin with, his name was scarcely known among the troops. He had spent the better part of his career in the elite School for Cavalry Officers. But he would soon win the soldiers' confidence with his brilliant command of them and his tireless efforts on their behalf; and by the autumn of 1916 his name would be famous not just in Russia but throughout the Allied world. As a commander, Brusilov was strictly disciplinarian. He believed that the only guarantee of military success was the army's own internal cohesion. In this respect he made unusually high demands on his men. Drinking, for example, was strictly forbidden, even among the officers. Yet he also worked day and night to make sure that the soldiers were fed, that they were suitably clothed and armed, and he never hesitated to punish any officer found to be corrupt or indigent in the distribution of supplies. He was at ease in conversation with the soldiers, a talent shared by very few generals, and knew how to raise their spirits on the eve of a battle. Some observers thought that his own deep religious conviction that Russia was destined to win the war rubbed off on his men.3
The original plan of the Russian high command had been to launch an offensive on the South-Western Front against the weaker Austrian forces, whilst defending the North-Western Front against the stronger Germans. But under pressure from France this plan was changed to an all-out offensive on both Fronts to force the Germans to transfer troops from the theatre in the west and thus relieve the French. The Russian commanders were happy to accede to the French request. Steeped in the military doctrines of the nineteenth century, they believed that a bold attack with plenty of cavalry charges and liberal use of the bayonet would best reflect the bravery of the Russian character. They failed to consider the huge loss of life that such an offensive was likely to entail once it was met with modern artillery and machine-guns.
On the South-Western Front things went well enough. In mid-August the Russians broke through in Galicia, forcing the Austrians to retreat. Brusilov's reputation as a brilliant Front commander was established here. His Eighth Army advanced 220 versts (130 miles) in the course of the following fortnight, capturing Lvov after heavy fighting (210,000 Russians and 300,000 Austrians were killed or wounded). Brusilov wrote to his wife from the Front at Grodek:
The entire field of battle, for a distance of almost a hundred versts, was piled high with corpses, and there weren't enough people or stretchers to clear them away .. . Even to give drink and food to all those who were suffering proved impossible. This is the painful and seamy side of war . . . But we have to continue our difficult and terrible task for the good of the Fatherland, and I only pray that God may grant me the strength of mind and spirit to fulfil my duty. As I sit here and write to you I can hear in the distance the booming of cannon and guns, pursuing the enemy. Blood is flowing in endless streams, but there is no other way to fight. The more blood flows the better the results and the sooner the war will end. As you see, it's a hard and bitter task but a necessary one for victory. But it weighs , terribly on my heart.4
On the North-Western Front, by contrast, the Russian advance soon ended in disaster. An ambitious but hastily concocted plan had envisaged the First Army under General von Rennenkampf invading the Junker heartland of East Prussia, while General Samsonov's Second Army advanced from the southeast to meet it near the Masurian Lakes, where they would combine and march on Berlin. The plan called for boldness, tactical precision and sound intelligence of the enemy's movements. None of these qualities was in evidence. On the fifteenth day of mobilization 408 battalions of infantry and 235 squadrons of cavalry moved rapidly west, pushing back the German Eighth Army, which they outnumbered almost two to one. General Prittwitz, the German commander, was thrown into panic and urged a withdrawal to the western banks of the Vistula, abandoning East Prussia to the Russians. Had they followed up their early successes, the Russians might have forced the Germans back. But the Russian commanders delayed their advance and dispersed vital troops and artillery to protect what turned out to be useless fortresses on their flanks and in their rear.
Meanwhile, the demoralized Prittwitz was replaced by Hindenburg and Ludendorff, whose vast superiority over the Russians in tactics and intelligence enabled them to ambush and rout their larger armies. From intercepted wireless transmissions, which the Russians had carelessly sent unciphered, they learned that Rennenkampf's army had stopped for supplies, and gambled on the assumption that it would go no further. Leaving only a small screening force to deceive Rennenkampf, the Germans transferred the rest of their forces south by train to meet Samsonov's advancing army. Had Rennenkampf realized what was happening and attacked, he could have won a decisive victory against the German left and possibly brought the war to an end. But the Russians had only a primitive system of military intelligence and no one had any idea of the German troop movements. Unprepared for the massive forces that lay in ambush for it in the forests near Tannenberg, Samsonov's army was surrounded and destroyed in four of the bloodiest days of carnage the world had ever known until that time. By the end of the battle, on 31 August, the Germans had killed or wounded 70,000 Russians and taken 100,000 prisoners at a loss to themselves of 15,000 men. They named it the Battle of Tannenberg in a symbolic gesture intended to avenge the defeat of the Teutonic Knights at the hands of the Slavs five hundred years before. Unable to bear the humiliation, Samsonov shot himself.
Moving troops back to the north by rail, and with fresh reinforcements from the Western Front, Hindenburg and Ludendorff once again outmanoeuvred the Russians in the Battle of the Masurian Lakes. Fearing a second Tannenberg, Rennenkampf now ordered a panic retreat. The Germans joked that he should no longer be called 'von Rennenkampf but 'Rennen von Kampf ('flight from the battle'). The cost of his incompetence and cowardice was 60,000 Russian lives.5
One of the striking features of this debacle was the callous response of the Russian commanders to its enormous human cost. It was as if any expression of regret for the needless loss of a quarter of a million men was seen as a sign of weakness in the aristocratic circles at Supreme Headquarters. When the French representative there condoled with the Grand Duke Nikolai over the losses, the Commander-in-Chief casually replied: 'Nous sommes heureux de faire de tels sacrifices pour nos alliees.'6 By forcing the Germans to withdraw troops from the Western theatre, the Russian advance had in fact helped to stall the Schlieffen Plan and enabled the French to launch their counter-offensive on the Marne. But at what a price!
From the autumn the Eastern Front began to stabilize as the war of mobility gave way to a war of position. Neither side was strong enough to push the enemy back and stalemate resulted. Sweeping offensives like those of the first month were abandoned as the armies discovered the advantages of defensive warfare and dug themselves in. One entrenched machine-gunner was enough to repel a hundred infantrymen, and railways could bring up defenders much faster than the advancing troops could fill gaps in the front line.
It was at this point that Russia's military weaknesses began to make themselves felt. She was not prepared for a war of attrition. Her single greatest asset, her seemingly inexhaustible supply of peasant soldiers, was not such an advantage as her allies had presumed when they had talked of the 'Russian steamroller' trundling unstoppably towards Berlin. It was true that Russia had by far the largest population of any belligerent country, yet she was also the first to suffer from manpower shortages. Because of the high birth-rate in Russia a large proportion of the population was younger than the minimum draft age. The entire pool of recruitable men was only twenty-seven million, and 48 per cent of these were exempt as only sons or the sole adult male workers in their family, or else on account of their ethnic background (Muslims were exempt, for example). Where 12 per cent of the German population and 16 per cent of the French was mobilized for military service, the figure for Russia was only 5 per cent.
More serious still was the weakness of the Russian reserves. The Russians had adopted the German reserve system. After three years of active duty from the age of twenty-one, recruits spent seven years in the First Levy reserves, followed by eight in the Second and five in the National Militia. To save money the army gave little formal training beyond the First Levy. Yet the casualties of 1914 were so much greater than anyone had ever expected (about 1.8 million) that the army soon found itself having to call on the untrained men of the Second Levy. The Battle of Przemysl in October was the last with which Brusilov could fight with 'an army that had been properly taught and trained before the war':
After hardly three months of war the greater part of our regular, professional officers and trained men had vanished, leaving only skeleton forces which had to be hastily filled with men wretchedly instructed who were sent to me from the depots .. . From this period onwards the professional character of our forces disappeared, and the army became more and more like a sort of badly trained militia. .. The men sent to replace casualties generally knew nothing except how to march .. . many could not even load their rifles and, as for their shooting, the less said about it the better .. . Such people could not really be considered soldiers at all.7
The soldier of the Russian army was, for the most part, a stranger to the sentiment of patriotism. Perhaps, to a certain extent, he could identify with the war as a defence of the Tsar, or of his religion, but defence of the Russian nation, especially if he himself was not Russian, meant very little to him. He was a peasant with little direct knowledge of the world outside his village, and his sense of himself as a 'Russian' was only very weakly developed. He thought of himself as a native of his local region and, as long as the enemy did not threaten to invade that area, saw little reason to fight with him. 'We are Tambov men,' the reluctant recruits would proclaim. 'The Germans will not get as far as that.' A farm agent from Smolensk, who served in the rear garrisons, heard such comments from the peasant soldiers during the first weeks of the war:
'What devil has brought this war on us? We are butting into other people's business.'
'We have talked it over among ourselves; if the Germans want payment, it would be better to pay ten roubles a head than to kill people.'
'Is it not all the same what Tsar we live under? It cannot be worse under the German one.'
'Let them go and fight themselves. Wait a while, we will settle accounts with you.'
These sorts of attitudes became more common in the ranks as the war went on, as Brusilov had cause to complain:
The drafts arriving from the interior of Russia had not the slightest notion of what the war had to do with them. Time after time I asked my men in the trenches why we were at war; the inevitable senseless answer was that a certain Archduke and his wife had been murdered and that consequently the Austrians had tried to humiliate the Serbians. Practically no one knew who these Serbians were; they were equally doubtful as to what a Slav was. Why Germany should want to make war on us because of these Serbians, no one could say . . . They had never heard of the ambitions of Germanv; they did not even know that such a country existed.8
All this hardly boded well for an army whose commanders were intent on marching to Berlin, let alone one that was committed to the capture of Constantinople. The Russian peasant took no pride in his country's imperial gains, being a natural pacifist.
The lack of a clear command structure was one of the army's biggest weaknesses. Military authority was divided between the War Ministry, Supreme Headquarters (Stavka) and the Front commands. Each pursued its own particular ends, so that no clear war plan emerged. 'From the beginning', complained Brusilov, 'I had never been able to find out anything about our general plan of campaign.' It was, as General Bezobrazov once quipped, all 'order, counter-order and disorder'.9 The bitter conflicts between the two main Front commands, the North-West and the South-West, were especially damaging. The stubborn refusal of the former to send reinforcements to the latter was a major cause of the collapse of the Carpathian offensive in the winter of 1914—15.
The division between the aristocratic elite of the Cavalry Guards and the new military professionals — Brusilov stood with one foot in each camp — was a major element in these conflicts. The top commanders were drawn from a narrow circle of aristocratic cavalrymen and courtiers with little military expertise. The Supreme Commander himself, die Grand Duke Nikolai, had never taken part in any serious fighting and was little more than a figurehead at Stavka. He entertained foreign visitors, signed the papers put in front of him, and surrounded himself with aides-de-camp, including his brothers, whom he called his 'sleeping pills'. But in strategic matters he failed to lead. At a conference of the Front commands in September he stayed in a separate room from the generals 'so as not to get in their way'. General Yanushkevich, his Chief of Staff, had nothing to recommend him but the personal favour of the Tsar, who had discovered him as a young Guardsman at the palace. He had never even commanded a battalion. Colonel Knox, the British military attaché at Stavka, gained the impression of a courtier rather than a soldier'. The whole atmosphere at Stavka, situated at a small Belorussian railway town called Baranovichi, could not have been less warlike. 'We were in the midst of a charming fir wood and everything was quiet and peaceful,' Knox recalled. Senior officers had plenty of time for leisurely conversations, a cigar and a walk in the forest after lunch. Many of them found time to write voluminous diaries or, like Brusilov, long daily letters to their wives.10
The same courtly manners were shared by most of the top commanders. Since 1909, when General Sukhomlinov (a perfect example of the military courtier) became War Minister, there had been a deliberate policy of promoting senior officers on the basis of their personal loyalty to the Tsar. Aristocratic but incompetent cavalrymen of the old Suvorov school were favoured over the military professionals, who had a far better understanding of the needs of modern warfare. The Tsar's constant interventions in the appointment of senior officers, sometimes at the insistence of his wife, ensured that connections and allegiance to him would continue to take precedence over military competence. Even in war Nicholas struggled to assert his patrimonial autocracy.
In the spring of 1915 Nicholas paid a visit to Brusilov's army in Galicia and appointed him one of his General-Adjutants. Brusilov assumed that this honour was in recognition of his services in the field, but he was informed by the Tsar himself that in fact it had been awarded for no other reason than that 'he had visited my headquarters and had lunched with me'. News of the honour was suppressed, for the court was not entirely convinced of Brusilov's allegiance (he had criticized the army's leadership). Polivanov, the Deputy War Minister, later admitted to Brusilov's wife that throughout the war 'secret arrangements' had been made to 'hush up' her husband's name lest his military successes should turn him into a focus of public opposition to the court's command of the armed forces. This pathetic tale sums up the way the war was conducted by the Russian ruling elite.11
As long as commanders were appointed for their loyalty to the court rather than their abilities there was little prospect of any effective military leadership. The aristocratic generals committed endless blunders (one even had the distinction of ordering his artillery to fire on his own infantry's trenches). They conducted the war after the pattern of a nineteenth-century campaign, asking their men to storm enemy artillery positions regardless of casualties; wasting resources on the expensive and ineffective cavalry; defending useless fortresses in the rear; and neglecting the technological needs of modern artillery war. They scorned the art of building trenches, since they regarded the war of position as beneath contempt. The primitive nature of the Russians' trenches, really no more than graves, caused huge loss of life once the war had developed into a slugging match of heavy artillery bombardment. Brusilov, one of the few army commanders to recognize the vital importance of trench warfare, was amazed by his officers' negligence:
I ordered my army to dig themselves in thoroughly and to construct a system of at least three lines with plenty of communicating trenches. I received a quantity of reports as to the impossibility of carrying out these instructions, but repeated my order explicitly, and was told that it was being obeyed. But when ... I went round the various Army Corps to inspect the work, it transpired that practically nothing had been done, and what little had been done was so completely filled with snow that it was difficult to discover where the trenches had been dug.
'How are you going to get into these lines, supposing the enemy attacks us?' I asked.
'Oh,' they replied, 'we'll clean them out when that happens' . ..
In one Army Corps there was a case where neither the Corps Commander, nor the Divisional Commander, nor the Brigadier, nor the Colonel of the Regiment, nor even the officer commanding the Corps Engineers, could tell me where the trenches had been dug.12
One of the obvious reasons for the East Prussian debacle was the Russian army's lack of mobility. Knox compared it to a 'heavy-weight, musclebound prize-fighter, who because of his enormous bulk, lacked activity and quickness, and would therefore be at the mercy of a lighter but more wiry and intelligent opponent'. The primitiveness of the Russian railway system ruled out the possibility of following the Germans' example; they moved troops rapidly by train from one part of the Front to another in response to the changing fortunes of war. Russia's military trains could not travel more than 200 miles a day and, in any case, most of them were filled with horses and fodder, such was the preoccupation of the military commanders with the cavalry. Once the army entered German territory it was dependent on captured rolling stock, since Russian trains ran on a different gauge. Russian motor transportation was even more basic. In 1914 there were no more than 679 motor cars (and two motorized ambulances!) for the whole of the army. Military equipment, senior personnel and the wounded had to be moved away from the railhead by peasant carts on muddy country roads. But it was the primitive state of Russia's military communications that really lay at the root of her defeat. Samsonov's Second Army had twenty-five telephones, a few morse-coding machines, a sort of primitive telex called a Hughes apparatus, and a tele-printer capable of printing 1,200 words per hour but which often broke down, which meant that the commander had to move around on horseback to find out what was going on. Telegraphic communications were constantly breaking down between Stavka, the Front commands and the armies, so that orders had to be sent by train or motorbike, which often took days. On the eve of the Battle of Tannenberg the North-West Front commander communicated with Samsonov by sending telegrams to the Warsaw Central Post Office, where an adjutant collected them once a day and took them by car more than sixty miles to Second Army headquarters. Many of these breakdowns in communication were caused by the errors of badly educated soldiers. Too many telephonists were unable to mend a broken line, too many drivers unable to read a map. The telegraphs would suddenly cease to function and an investigation of the lines to the rear would reveal a party of soldiers cooking their tea on a bonfire made of chopped-up telegraph poles.13
As the war dragged on through the winter the army began to experience terrible shortages of materiel. The breakdown of the supply system in the rear was partly to blame. The transport network could not cope with the massive deliveries of munitions, food, clothing and medical care to the fronts. But the lack of any real pre-war planning was also to blame. Counting on a short campaign, the War Ministry had made no plans for the wartime production of materiel, assuming that existing stocks would be enough to see them through. As it turned out, the stocks lasted no longer than the first few weeks of the war.
The problem was particularly acute with regard to munitions. A reserve of seven million shells was expected to last the whole war, enough for a thousand rounds per field gun, or ten days of fighting at 1916 levels. The Russian armaments industry, which could have kept the army well supplied, was deliberately run down by the War Ministry (in the first seven months of 1914 it ordered just 41 rifles), so once shortages became apparent orders had to be placed abroad and delays were inevitable. By the end of the war, there were ten different models of imported rifle, each firing a different type of bullet, in use with the Russian army. Part of the problem was the wastefulness of the soldiers themselves: they used their rifles to prop up improvised roofs over their trenches; chopped them up for firewood; and all too often threw them away, along with the heavy supplies of ammunition, when they were wounded or suddenly forced to retreat. But the crisis would undoubtedly have been less severe if the War Ministry had responded more quickly to the calls of alarm from the generals, instead of dismissing them. In mid-October, when General Karavaev, Chief of the Artillery Department, warned the War Minister that Russia would soon have to sue for peace because of the lack of munitions, Sukhomlinov told him to 'go to the devil and quiet himself. And yet by the following spring the shortage was such that whole battalions had to be trained without rifles, while many second-line troops at the Front were relying on rifles picked up from the men shot in front of them. Soldiers were told to limit themselves to ten shots a day and in many cases, when the German heavy artillery bombarded their trenches, the Russian gunners were forbidden to return fire. 'Our position is bad,' one soldier wrote to his father, 'and all because we have no ammunition. That's where we've got to, thanks to our ministers of war, making unarmed people face up to the enemy's guns because we don't have any of our own. That's what they have done!'14
Brusilov's army, having fought its way to the top of the Carpathian mountains, found itself stuck there for much of the winter without enough ammunition to fight its way down on to the Hungarian plain. 'I was disheartened to learn', he later wrote, 'that the Front Headquarters could hardly promise any improvement before the autumn of 1915, and even in these promises I had no confidence. I therefore no longer aimed at any fresh successes on this front, but attempted merely to hold my ground with as few losses as possible.' But spending the winter in the mountains was a cruel reward for his men, without warm clothes and boots or enough food to see them through the frosts. Brusilov spent the month of December bombarding the War Ministry with demands for winter kit, but his appeals were only part of a growing chorus from all parts of the army and the sad truth was that, having expected the war to be over by Christmas, the Ministry had made no provisions for the huge demand it now encountered. There were not even plans for the mass manufacture of boots and when the Ministry finally looked to its soldiers' footware, it discovered that the whole Russian Empire contained one factory capable of producing tanning extract, and that before 1914 virtually all of the country's tannin had been imported from Germany. New boots had to be ordered from the United States, but meanwhile thousands of soldiers fought barefoot. 'They still haven't given out overcoats,' one frozen soldier wrote to his mother. 'We run around in thin topcoats .. . There is not much to eat and what we get is foul. Perhaps we'd be better off dead!' Another soldier wrote home after the visit of the Tsar to his unit: 'For the Tsar's inspection they prepared one company and collected all the best uniforms from the other regiments for it to wear, leaving the rest of the men in the trenches without boots, knapsacks, bandoliers, trousers, uniforms, hats, or anything else.'15
It was not long before the army was ridden with disease. Cholera, typhus, typhoid, scurvy and dysentery epidemics decimated the troops. The unexpectedly high rate of casualties placed the medical services under terrible pressure. Brusilov wrote to his wife after visiting one field hospital in the rear of his army:
Instead of the 200 patients, for which the hospital had been built, there were over 3,000 sick and wounded men. What could four doctors do for them? They worked day and night, ate on their feet, but still couldn't bandage everyone ... I went around several wards, rooms in vacated houses, where the sick and wounded lay on the floor, on straw, dressed, unwashed and covered in blood. I thanked them on behalf of the Tsar and the Fatherland, and gave out money and St George's crosses, but there was nothing more I could do. I could only try to speed up their evacuation to the rear.
Evacuation, however, was no guarantee of any better treatment. At the Warsaw railway station Rodzianko found 17,000 wounded soldiers lying unattended 'in the cold rain and mud without so much as straw litter'. The Duma President complained angrily to the local medical department, only to find that their 'heartless indifference to the fate of these suffering men' was supported by a host of bureaucratic regulations.16
As conditions at the Front worsened and the scale of the slaughter increased, the army's morale and discipline began to fall apart. The war in this sense was the social architect of 1917 as the army gradually turned into one vast revolutionary mob. Part of the problem was the weakening grip of the officers over their men. The army expanded too fast for the officers to retain control (nine million men were called up in the first twelve months of the war). Officer casualties (at 60,000) were meanwhile unusually high, which no doubt owed something to their colourful uniforms and their old-fashioned practice of leading frontal charges. The old officer corps below the level of captain was almost completely wiped out, while a new generation of lower-ranking officers (what in the West would be called NCOs) was hastily trained to replace them. The number of NCOs was never enough — the artisan classes who usually made up this tier of the army were generally weak in Russia — and it was unusual after the first year of the war for a front-line regiment of 3,000 men to have more than a dozen officers. Moreover, 60 per cent of the NCOs came from a peasant background, very few had more than four years' education, and nearly all of them were in their early twenties.17 The war was thus a great democratizer, opening channels of advancement for millions of peasant sons. Their sympathies lay firmly with the ordinary soldiers, and any hopes that they might form a bridge between the high-born officers and their low-born troops were badly misplaced. This was the radical military cohort — literate, upwardly mobile, socially disoriented and brutalized by war — who would lead the mutiny of February, the revolutionary soldiers' committees, and eventually the drive to Soviet power during 1917. Many of the Red Army's best commanders (e.g. Chapaev, Zhukov and Rokossovsky) had been NCOs in the tsarist army, much as the marshals of Napoleon's wars had begun as subalterns in the king's army. The sergeants of the First World War would become the marshals of the Second.
Dmitry Os'kin (1892—1934), whose story is told throughout this book, was a typical example of this war-created officer class. For a peasant lad like him — literate and bright despite his country-bumpkin looks — the army offered a means of escape from the poverty of the village. In the summer of 1913 he volunteered for the infantry regiment in his local town of Tula, and soon found himself on a training course for NCOs. When the war broke out he was made a platoon commander. Os'kin was a brave and conscientious soldier, thoroughly deserving of the four St George's Crosses he would win in the course of the war.18 Some part of his character, self-discipline or ambition, compelled him to carry out the commands of his senior officers, despite his 'peasant' animosity towards all figures of authority. Perhaps it was the realization that, unless he established some discipline among his men, they were likely to be slaughtered on the battlefield. Certainly, as the war took its toll on the senior officers, the burden increased on NCOs like him to hold the ranks together.
Os'kin's senior commanders were a swinish lot. On several occasions their reckless orders led his men to the brink of disaster and it was only by his own improvised initiatives that they managed to come out alive. Captain Tsit-seron, a gambler, syphilitic and shameless coward, was always in a quandary on the battlefield. Once, when facing some well-entrenched Austrian guns on a hill, he ordered Os'kin's men to cut a way through the rows of barbed wire in full view of their artillery. Crawling forward, they soon came under heavy fire and Os'kin looked up to see countless Russian corpses hanging on the wire. Cursing Tsitseron, he brought his men back to safety. Captain Samfarov, another of Os'kin's commanders, was an ice-cream glutton, too fat to fit into his uniform, who hid in his private dug-out whenever the shelling began. He liked to 'keep his men on their toes' by ordering midnight attacks, despite the obvious lack of strategic preparations for nocturnal fighting. Once, when such an assault nearly destroyed the whole battalion and Os'kin's men returned the following day in a terrible state, Samfarov had them lined up in their ranks and shouted at them for half an hour because they had failed to polish their boots.19
Not all the commanders were so incompetent or cruel. But there was a growing feeling among the soldiers that so much blood need not be spilled, if the officers thought less of themselves and more of the safety of their men. The fact that the mass of the soldiers were peasants, and that many of their officers were noble landowners (often from the same region as their men), added a dimension of social conflict; and this was exacerbated by the 'feudal' customs between the ranks (e.g. the obligation of the soldiers to address their officers by their honorary titles, to clean their boots, run private errands for them, and so on). 'Look at the way our high-up officers live, the landowners whom we have always served,' wrote one peasant soldier to his local newspaper at home. 'They get good food, their families are given everything they need, and although they may live at the Front, they do not live in the trenches where we are but four or five versts away' For literate and thinking peasants like Os'kin, this was a powerful source of political radicalization, the realization that the war was being fought in very different ways by two very different Russias: the Russia of the rich and the senior officers, and the Russia of the peasants, whose lives were being squandered. Os'kin's diary, April 1915:
What are we doing in this war? Several hundred men have already passed through my platoon alone and at least half of them have ended up on the fields of battle either killed or wounded. What will they get at the end of the war? . . . My year and a half of military service, with almost a year at the Front, has stopped me from thinking about this, for the task of the platoon commander demands strict discipline and that means, above all, not letting the soldier think freely for himself. But these are the things we must think about.20
Others less able to draw political lessons simply voted with their feet. Discipline broke down as soldiers refused to take up positions, cut off their fingers and hands to get themselves discharged, surrendered to the enemy or deserted to the rear. There were drunken outbursts of looting and riots at the recruiting stations as the older reservists, many with families to support, were mobilized. Their despatch to the Front merely accelerated the ferment of rebellion, since they brought bad news from home and sometimes revolutionary propaganda too. The officers responded all too often with more force. Reluctant soldiers were flogged or sent into battle with their own side's artillery aimed at their backs. This internal war between the officers and their men began to overshadow the war itself. 'The officers are trying to break our spirits by terrorizing us,' one soldier wrote to his wife in the spring of 1915. 'They want to make us into lifeless puppets.' Another wrote that a group of officers had 'flogged five men in front of 28,000 troops because they had left their barracks without permission to go and buy bread'.21
At this point, after a long winter of demoralization, the army faced the biggest German offensive of the war. With the Western Front bogged down in stalemate, the Germans were pinning their hopes on a decisive breakthrough in the east. It began on the night of 2 May 1915 with a massive four-hour bombardment of the unprepared Third Army near Gorlice. A thousand shells a minute reduced the Russian trenches to rubble. When the German infantry stormed them the following morning they found only a handful of shell-shocked survivors. The rest had all run away. The Russians 'jumped up and ran back weaponless', recalled one German soldier. 'In their grey fur caps and fluttering unbuttoned great coats [they looked] like a flock of sheep in wild confusion.' Without a defensive strategy (Dmitriev, the Third Army commander, had left his headquarters to attend the annual celebration of the Order of the Knights of St George), the Russians were forced into headlong retreat. General Denikin described it as 'one vast tragedy for the Russian army. No cartridges, no shells. Bloody fighting and difficult marches day after day.' Within ten days the Third Army's shattered remnants — a mere 40,000 of its 220,000 troops — had fallen back to the San River, the last natural barrier between the Germans and Przemysl. They prepared to make a stand on its banks, only to find that corrupt officers had sold all the spades, barbed wire and timber needed to build the trenches. Without artillery or supplies of ammunition, they held out as best they could, suffering heavy losses. Many men fought with nothing but bayonets fixed to their empty rifles. But by the end of May they were finally forced to abandon Przemysl. Lvov (Lemberg) was soon to follow, as the Germans approached the borders of Russia itself. It had been, as Knox was to put it, a barrage of 'metal against men'.22
The German breakthrough exposed the northern flank of Brusilov's army in the Carpathians. To avoid the danger of being cut off and surrounded, it was forced to retreat and abandon the hard-won heights it had spent the winter desperately defending. 'My dear Nadiushenka,' Brusilov wrote on II June:
We have had to give up Przemysl and Lvov. You cannot imagine how painful that is ... I am trying to give the appearance that things really are not so bad, but inside it hurts, my heart is grieving, and my spirits are depressed. Let's suppose, and I am convinced, that we shall regain the land we have just lost and that we shall win the war, it is just a matter of time, but none the less it is terribly painful. One has to show strength of will at such times, not just when everything is going well, that is easy, but when things are bad, so as to encourage the demoralized and those on the brink of losing their morale, of which there are many.23
Meanwhile, in mid-July, the Germans also launched an offensive in East Prussia. They pushed north towards Riga, east towards Vilnius and south to join the other German forces advancing through Poland. The 'impregnable' fortresses of Kovno, Grodno, Osowiec, Novogeorgievsk and Ivangorod, which the Russians had placed at the centre of their defensive strategy, filling them up with precious supplies of munitions, were abandoned one by one as the Germans advanced with their heavy artillery. It was yet another example of the Russian military elite trying to fight a twentieth-century conflict with tactics more appropriate to the Crimean War. The huge stone bastions turned out to be useless museums, concrete traps for men and supplies, and Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who had made their names on the Western Front by storming the fortress of Liege, had little difficulty repeating their success in the east. The fortifications at Kovno (Kaunas) were so poor that the Grand Duke Nikolai said the fortress ought to be renamed 'Govno' (the Russian word for 'shit'). Its aged commander, to make matters even worse, had secretly fled the fortress on the eve of its capture. He was finally tracked down to the bar of the Bristol Hotel in Wilno (Vilnius) and sentenced to fifteen years' hard labour.24
With all its armies pushed back by the force of German steel, the Russian command had little choice but to order a general retreat. No real plans were made. There were vague romantic notions of repeating the scorched-earth tactics of General Kutuzov which, in Tolstoy's version at least, had so brilliantly entrapped Napoleon's troops in the winter wastelands of Russia. 'The retreat will continue as far — and for as long — as necessary,' the Tsar told Maurice Paleologue at the end of July. 'The Russian people are as unanimous in their will to conquer as they were in 1812.' But in all other respects — the sequence of evacuation, the selection of things to destroy and the planning of strategic positions at which to make a new stand — there were only confusion and panic. Troops destroyed buildings, bridges, animals and crops in a totally random way. This often broke down into pillaging, especially of Jewish property. Hundreds of thousands of refugees, their homes and farms demolished, trudged east along the railway lines with their few belongings piled on to carts, while trains sped past carrying senior officers, their mistresses, and, in the words of one officer, 'all sorts of useless junk, including cages with canaries'. No provision was made for the care of the refugees, most of whom ended up living on station floors and the streets of Russia's cities. 'Sickness, misery and poverty are speading across the whole of Russia,' Krivoshein, the Minister of Agriculture, warned the Council of Ministers in August. 'Starving and ragged masses are sowing panic everywhere. Surely no country ever saved itself by its own destruction.'25
The summer months of unending retreat dealt another crippling blow to the troops' morale. It was hard for them to see territory which they had fought and died for so easily sacrificed to the enemy. The destruction of military stores in the rear, full of the clothing and food they had so badly needed, was especially hard to bear. 'Every day', wrote Os'kin, 'we would come across another store of food and munitions in some village or other. They were all just left there and destroyed.' Here was the final damning proof of the military leaders' incompetence. 'They've screwed it all up,' Brusilov overheard one of his soldiers mutter, 'and we've been landed with cleaning up the mess.' Demoralization in the rear was even more advanced. Nadezhda Brusilova wrote to her husband:
You are so naive, if you still believe in victory. We in the rear have a much better idea of what is going on and we are already convinced that the Germans will win the war. They will be in Moscow by 1916. This is the catastrophe and collapse of Russia.
There were widespread rumours in the rear about treason in high places, which soon spread to the Front. The German background of the Tsarina and other government figures, and the execution in March 1915 of Colonel Miasoyedov, one of Sukhomlinov's proteges, for spying for Germany seemed to confirm such conspiracy theories. A Bolshevik soldier recalls the efforts of one NCO, for example, to explain to his soldiers the reason for the retreat: 'There are many traitors and spies in the high command of our army, like the War Minister Sukhomlinov, whose fault it is that we don't have any shell, and Miasoyedov, who betrayed the fortresses to the enemy.' When he had finished a soldier-cook drew the conclusion: A fish begins to stink from the head. What kind of a Tsar would surround himself with thieves and cheats? It's as clear as day that we're going to lose the war.'26
For many soldiers this was the vital psychological moment of the revolution — the moment when their loyalty to the monarchy finally snapped. A government which had dragged them into a war which they could not hope to win, had failed to provide them with adequate weapons and supplies, and now was in league with the enemy was certainly not worthy of further sacrifices. A million men surrendered to the German and Austrian forces during the Great Retreat, most of them preferring to spend the rest of the war in the enemies' prisoner-of-war camps than vainly trying to fight their superior armies. An unknown number, but certainly tens of thousands, deserted to the rear, where many of them put their guns to a different use and lived from banditry. Even Sergeant Os'kin, who was wounded in the knee and eventually (after being forced to march on his wounded leg) evacuated to a Moscow hospital, felt so humiliated by the Great Retreat that, after his leg had been amputated, he deserted from his regiment and went to a friend's farm in Siberia. But the farm had been burned down by the Cossacks, who had also requisitioned all its cattle for the government and had raped his friend's wife and mother. This was the last straw for Os'kin, who now joined the SR Party underground in Siberia and watched with growing interest the political crisis unfolding as a result of the Great Retreat. In a final desperate effort to raise the morale of the troops, the Chief of Staff General Yanushkevich urged the Tsar to promise that in the event of a Russian victory every loyal soldier would be given 16 desyatiny (43 acres) of land. But it was too late for such measures and even Yanushkevich called it 'clutching at straws'. The army was falling apart. By September, when the enemy's advance was finally bogged down in the Russian mud, its front-line forces had been reduced to one-third of their strength at the start of the war.27
* * * 'It cannot go on like this,' Nicholas wrote in his diary on hearing the news of Warsaw's fall. Three weeks later he took what many people believed at the time was the most fateful decision of his entire reign. On 22 August he dismissed the Grand Duke Nikolai and assumed the supreme command of the army himself. Stavka was moved 200 miles eastward to Mogilev, a dirty and dreary provincial town whose name derives from the word in Russian for a 'grave'. Here the Tsar's regime buried itself.
It seems there were two reasons (both equally flawed) for Nicholas's decision — and it was his decision — to assume the command of the army. First, that at this critical moment the supreme ruler should stand at the head of the armed forces. There was a certain logic to this. Since the war began there had been in effect a dual power system — one led by the Grand Duke and the other by the Tsar — without any real co-ordination between them. However by moving to the Front, Nicholas merely undermined his own authority in the rear, where, in his absence, a sort of bureaucratic anarchy developed with the Tsarina, the ministers and the representatives of the Duma, the zemstvos and the war industries all at loggerheads. Second, the Tsar had hoped that by placing himself at the head of the army, he might help to restore its morale: if the soldiers would not fight for 'Russia', then perhaps they would fight for him. But Nicholas had no experience of military command and, although the important decisions were all taken by his new Chief of Staff, General M. V Alexeev, who was a gifted strategist, the Tsar's presence had a bad effect overall on morale. For, in the words of Brusilov, 'Everyone knew that Nicholas understood next to nothing about military matters and, although the word "Tsar" still had a magical power over the troops, he utterly lacked the charisma to bring that magic to life. Faced with a group of soldiers, he was nervous and did not know what to say.'28
The Council of Ministers, in a unique act of loyal criticism, pleaded with the Tsar to change his mind. 'The decision you have taken', it warned, 'threatens Russia, You, and Your dynasty with the gravest consequences.' But Nicholas would not be dissuaded. No doubt the influence of his wife, who had put him up to this coup de main, helped to strengthen his resolve. He may well have seen the move as his last chance to silence the growing public criticism of the war campaign, and the urgent sense that his own throne was threatened drove him on to take what was a huge risk. Coinciding as it did with his decision to close down the Duma, which had been in session since July, it signalled a new resolve on his part to reassert his personal rule. Perhaps he still harboured fantasies that his 'mystical union' with 'the people' would save the country from catastrophe. Krivoshein, for one, thought that the Tsar's decision was 'fully in tune with his spiritual frame of mind and his mystical understanding of his imperial calling'.29 The support he received from the Tsarina and Rasputin, who encouraged his dreams of personal rule, was in line with this, although their real concern was no doubt in part to get him out of their way. With the Tsar absent at the Front, power in the capital would pass to them.